In competitive political campaigns, it is rare indeed that people can agree on something across party lines. That makes it all the more shocking that almost everybody, regardless of affiliation, granted that Democratic candidate John Kerry made a strong showing at last week's first presidential debate, while President George W. Bush, the Republican, was seen as faltering.
Those judgments were reflected across the board in a variety of polls, but celebrating Democrats should observe several caveats: First, there are two more presidential debates to come, and, if the campaign of 2000 showed anything, it was that an overconfident debate participant (read: Al Gore) can end up being perceived as the loser to Bush, whose Everyman qualities flaws and all apparently endear him to a sizeable segment of the electorate. Second, and perhaps most important, the aforesaid polls indicate that the president is still regarded by more people, right or wrong, as being better able to defend the country against foreign enemies. Especially since the possibility of further terrorist attacks between now and November 2nd cannot be ruled out, this factor could loom disproportionately large in the election results.
Many observers have noted that the three encounters between the two major presidential candidates are not true debates but rather joint appearances. Critics argue that the ground rules negotiated by the two major parties prevent real give-and-take in the mode of the Lincoln-Davis debates of the mid-19th century. True, and so much the worse.
But in a political environment otherwise governed by misleading spin and by well-financed disinformation campaigns, the chance to see the two opponents side by side, responding more or less to the same questions, is worth something.
Ultimately, there are two grounds on which people decide for one candidate against another that of issues and that of personality. Neither is to be minimized, and the debate format is still the best way for voters to make valid comparisons.